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Monday, Feb 4, 2008

Now that the Atlantic Monthly has made its online archives freely accessible, I can link to the most disturbing magazine article I have ever read, about people who have an irresistible compulsion to become amputees, feeling incomplete in their completeness. Obviously this raises questions about identity, about what makes people believe they are trapped in the wrong sort of body.


Like Robert Smith, I have been struck by the way wannabes use the language of identity and selfhood in describing their desire to lose a limb. “I have always felt I should be an amputee.” “I felt, this is who I was.” “It is a desire to see myself, be myself, as I ‘know’ or ‘feel’ myself to be.” This kind of language has persuaded many clinicians that apotemnophilia has been misnamed—that it is not a problem of sexual desire, as the -philia suggests, but a problem of body image. What true apotemnophiles share, Smith said in the BBC documentary, is the feeling “that their body is incomplete with their normal complement of four limbs.” Smith has elsewhere speculated that apotemnophilia is not a psychiatric disorder but a neuropsychological one, with biological roots. Perhaps it has less to do with desire than with being stuck in the wrong body.


It strikes me too as a parable of freedom, the paradox of choice taken to a logical extreme—if limiting options potentially liberates us, why not remove limbs and really limit our options, really put an edge on everyday activities we take for granted?


Seeing the internet as a vector for spreading the kind of identity confusion that leads to self-amputation, the article also poses the question, “Can the mere description of a condition make it contagious?” So read at your own risk.


 


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Sunday, Feb 3, 2008


It was awful. The game, up until the fourth quarter, was a dog ugly low scoring defensive battle, as patience trying as the big show ever gets. Both teams looked skittish and out of their element, with New York finally finding the fire late enough to pull out a victory. Even Fox’s announcing team (Joe Buck and Troy Aikman) seemed unable to work up the energy to actually care. Their last minute accolades sounded hollow and rote. But maybe the worst element of the 42nd Super Bowl telecast this year was the horrendous commercials. There was nothing memorable or remotely clever. Controversy gave over to safe as milk shilling, and the closest thing to innovation came from Coke, who had a pair of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons (Stewie Griffin and Underdog) fighting over an inflated bottle of the famed soda.


So Hollywood can’t be happy. Last year, in a bid to ignore the demographic potential of the NFL’s premiere event, the studios only bought four major ads - and the films they represented (Wild Hogs, Meet the Robinsons, Hannibal Rising, and Pride) were hardly the cream of the crop. This year, that number more than doubled. If you count the two brief trailers that played prior to kick-off and the one obvious tie-in with Bud Lite, there were 11 sneak peeks (the four hours of pre-game hype were not taken into consideration). By contrast, Fox advertised its own network fare 43 times, pimping everything from the FX cable channel to The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Still, Tinsel Town tried to put on its game face during this writer’s strike hobbled awards season, and for the most part, it looked like they we playing their practice squad. In fact, aside from one outright surprise, the movies featured were obvious and the previews themselves uninspired.


First up was the underperforming one two punch of Vantage Point and Drillbit Taylor. The former is a supposed thriller where eight people witness the assassination of the President. We then get a hyper-Rashomon rehash of what supposedly happened. Of course, the trailer gives away one of the movie’s main secrets (apparently, the Commander in Chief did not die) and what initially looked like an actioner comes back feeling like a crackpot conspiracy theory retread. Still, it has more potential than the freaks and geeks groaner Taylor. Owen Wilson, looking incredibly tired, plays bodyguard to a bunch of socially awkward dorks. The humor is forced and totally focused on putting nerds in uncomfortable athletic positions and watching them fail. Hardee-har-har-har.


Once the game began, the First Quarter found limited offense and even less film news. Not a single ad for a Hollywood production aired during the initial hour-plus of the Super Bowl. When a trailer finally did arrive it was for something called Wanted. Directed by Russian genre guide Timur Bekmanbetov (of Night/Day/Twilight Watch fame) it looks like a combination of The Matrix and Shoot ‘Em Up. While the 30 second spot offers very little of the plot - lots of big bang money shots, but little else - we do get to see Angelina Jolie doing her best non-VR Trinity, and Morgan Freeman packing heat. The curving bullet bit may be the visual selling point at this juncture, but there needs to be more information on the skilled assassin storyline before a verdict can truly be rendered.


A film we’ve heard a great deal about already, Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, finally got a full blown F/X ad, and the results were…mixed. The shots of our hero in flight were fleeting, and Robert Downey Jr. did very little except look concerned and spout blockbuster buzzspeak. The closing moments when our metal marvel takes a pot shot at a tank stands as a memorable image. Still, with nearly three more months left before the film finally bows, the marketers are going to have to do more than offer up small snippets of CGI if anyone besides comic fans are going to get excited. And leave it to the NFL to leech all the potential fun out of George Clooney’s period football comedy Leathernecks by trying to find an appropriate league link to the clearly fictional flick. The historical approach was hackneyed and somewhat crude.


Disney dropped the last trailer before halftime, and oddly enough, it was the edited version of the longer in theaters The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian ad. If you needed further proof that the House of Mouse and Walden Entertainment are positioning this faux franchise to be a less D&D oriented version of The Lord of the Rings, the bombastic, attempted epic scope of the 30 second piece is all the evidence you need. Between huge water beings, ethereal witches, roaring lions, and lots of stand-offish swordplay, we have the kind of tamed down Tolkien that everyone can enjoy. With the success of the first film, the sequel was inevitable. How successful the latest installment is will be based solely on how well Uncle Walt can sell the spectacle. So far, they’re succeeding.


Once Tom Petty finished running through songs that he popularized over a decade (or more) ago during a decent if neo-nostalgic halftime show, the game returned - and so did the trailers. Semi-Pro, the latest Will Ferrell hard-R comedy delivered a 15 second clip that highlighted the more physical side of the film’s humor. Dressed in his ill-fitting basketball uniform and massive red afro, we got a surreal stunt sequence. It was the kind of physical comedy bit that continues to give post-modern slapstick a bad name. Better was the Fourth Quarter hook up with beer maker Budweiser. Still decked out in his iconic gear, Ferrell ran through a series of smutty entendres that were far funnier than anything offered the first time around.


Pixar picked up the pace, if only a little, by dragging out Toy Story stars Woody and Buzz for a commentary like commercial for the predestined Summer smash, WALL-E.  As the recognizable voice of Tom Hanks explained a bit about the premise, our cute little robot does battle with a vacuum cleaner. Nothing new or novel here, especially not the title character’s occasional mechanical Macaulay Culkin mugging for the camera. It’s not that WALL-E is unappealing. It’s just that, so far, Pixar seems to be selling the film based on its name and reputation alone, and little else. At this point in their production history, they may have earned that right. But for anyone curious as to what the film is actually about, these initial trailers are incredibly tight-lipped.


A movie that should keep its big, loud, obnoxious mouth shut is Jumper. Hayden Christiansen, hoping to prove there is career legitimacy after ruining the Star Wars saga, plays a variation of his personality-less drone as a guy with a talent for teleportation. Samuel L. Jackson is the bleached blond badass who’s out to kill him. Here’s praying he succeeds. While the preview gives far more play to director Doug Liman (of The Bourne Identity) than anything else, another background name should make film fans wary. David S. Goyer wrote the script with help from Simon Kinberg (xXx: State of the Union) and Jim Uhls (Fight Club). While his collaborators have some intriguing credits, our main screenwriter has proven to be a very uneven scribe.


That just leaves the last trailer, a real shocker for something called You Don’t Mess with the Zohan. It’s Adam Sandler’s latest, and about as far from the appalling I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry as a standard Stud Boy comedy can get. It’s back to the old familiar formula that made the ex-SNLer a superstar - freaky foreign accent, weird premise (Israeli Secret Serviceman fakes his death only to reemerge as a NYC hairdresser) and lots of certifiably stupid sight gags. It may be the fact that few outside the industry knew this was in the pipes, or Sandler’s surreal appearance and voice, but this spot seemed very bizarre - and very funny. Of course, the film could be a real loser, but at this point, the preview is suggesting otherwise.


And then, that was it. The Giants hoisted the Lombardi Trophy, Eli got some MVP swag to place on the mantle next to Peyton’s, the Patriots took to the tunnel, dejected and somewhere, the still smug old men who once called themselves the ‘72 Miami Dolphins uncorked the champagne and celebrated another undefeated team’s competitive comeuppance. From a pure sports history perspective, this Super Bowl will probably go down as one of the lamest excuses for athletic prowess that ended up producing the biggest single story (18-0 team finally loses) of the new millennium. Sadly, the Madison Avenue minds responsible for the commercials came up incredibly short. Even Hollywood failed to hold up its end.


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Saturday, Feb 2, 2008

By Susanna Nelson


Marieke Hardy

Marieke Hardy


The doyenne of DIY pop culture, Melbourne journalist and blogger Marieke Hardy recently gathered up her books and laptop and took off to Sydney to assume a post on national youth network Triple J’s breakfast show alongside two station stalwarts, like Myf Warhurst before her.


I can’t help but feel dismayed by her decision to throw herself into the often undignified maelstrom of breakfast radio.


Part of the problem is with the station itself. Though it grew out of radical, government-owned 1970s Sydney station 2JJ, it has since gone national and come under attack for its highly structured, youth-focused programming. In other words, it is renowned for flogging songs to death. What’s more, the narrow demographic it so self-consciously pursues makes anyone over the age of 20 squirm with discomfort at all the shouty youth references and the My Chemical Romance tracks on high rotation – it tries painfully hard to be ‘down with the kids’.


The other problem is the modern Australian breakfast radio format. It’s depressing to think that this was the result of comprehensive market research. One imagines it must be a very small demographic group indeed that confesses to enjoying inane patter, scripted and unfunny jokes, infomercials, celebrity gossip, Beat the Bomb competitions and the anecdotes of John from Bundoora as the first thing they hear upon waking for the daily grind.


The ratings don’t bear this out. The fact is, this formula is globally recognised as a winner. Radio is a welcome burr of background noise to many of us inhabitants of the modern world, who are so assaulted with sound and vision at every turn we actually can’t cope with silence. Being alive is to be crash-tackled by stimuli. Small wonder so many people choose to wake to the bustle of breakfast radio – start as you mean to go on, and all that.


Some stations are better than others. Community radio station PBS fm in Melbourne wakes the listener gently with an intelligent mix of new independent music chosen by charming hosts and old mates, Todd James and Lyndelle Wilkinson. It’s amazing what a difference true independence makes. Like fellow Melbourne community broadcaster RRR, PBS was a phoenix from the ashes of student radio in the 1970s, and prides itself on giving its announcers free rein.


Just this week, the summer substitute breakfast host ended his two week stint. He had never done even an intern or graveyard shift and no-one knew who he was. But he brought in his record collection and his unstoppable enthusiasm for everything from the Runaways to Chicago and let rip. It was joyous – and it would never happen on the commercial networks or Triple J, which rely on ‘personalities’, slick scripting and a rigid play list.


For those who don’t want to wake up to music, over on ABC Radio National, sole host Fran Kelly gets her teeth into the issues we should all be thinking about.


The common denominator seems to be that these shows are about something bigger than the egos of the hosts themselves – something unifying and interesting.


But there’s a certain configuration of breakfast show, hugely popular in Australia, that is impossible to abide. It’s characterised by what I call ‘the pack of comics’, and it’s actually worse than the familiar ‘Battle of the Sexes’ duo schtick – think Kyle and Jackie O – of most commercial radio. It’s safe to say that, within this format, the sole job of the crowd of hosts is to annoy you into wakefulness in the place of a blaring buzzer, and to keep you that way in the car on the way to work.


To some extent the blame must be shouldered by the Working Dog productions team and their enormously popular Channel 10 (Australia) TV show The Panel, a weekly round-up of current affairs where the premise was that a regular team of affable alpha people, all with comic or writerly credentials, sat there chewing the unscripted, knockabout fat. Often the gags were hilarious. Trouble is, when they weren’t, the laughter continued in an unabated flow of self-congratulation (or perhaps nerves) that left the viewer in the cold.


When transferred to radio this ‘pack of comics’ concept becomes intolerable. At best, it’s a scrabble of unidentified voices jostling for precedence, at worst it’s an unwelcome display of bruised egos and palpable hostility verging on workplace bullying. And there’s a formula – the strained laughter and dilution of personality seems to be directly proportional to the number of folk vying for a sound bite. It’s embarrassing to listen to.


Never was there a more apt moniker for the now defunct group of five clashing egos as the Austereo Network’s The Cage, broadcast in Brisbane and Melbourne. Forced conflict – not to mention forced laughter – and inane patter were the order of the day. At that time of the morning, who needs it?


And it’s striking how the men in these microcosms of the workplace dominate – by sheer force, not of wit, but of boorishness. Women are often forced to act as placeholders, playing it straight, or more often, playing it dumb. And time and again when ratings wane, the women on the team are blamed – when Sydney’s 2 Day FM breakfast show was altered, Peter Helliar was the last man standing in a team that included the abundantly funny and smart Judith Lucy and Kaz Cooke.


When Myf Warhurst decided to leave Triple J (where she had recently joined the breakfast team of Jay and the Doctor) and move back to Melbourne to take up a post with the Austereo Network, a Facebook group sprang up deriding her for selling out. But who can blame her for wanting to be one half of a comfortable duo, for craving the space to develop a relationship with her audience, however commercial, rather than playing odd girl out in an established gang – a gang that mocked her mercilessly for the heinous crime (on youth radio, at least) of forgetting the name of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. 


Comments on Marieke Hardy’s popular blog have made mention of the strained dynamic between the new Triple J breakfast team. She has a strong internet following, a ready wit and an iron constitution, and in the few weeks she has been on air has managed to hold her own in the face of her competitive and at times humourless co-hosts. But we’re not getting the best of her as a breakfast host.


About the writer: Susanna Nelson is a trades journalist by day and a freelance pop analyst after dark.


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


© Susanna Nelson 2008


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


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Saturday, Feb 2, 2008


They say that comedy isn’t pretty. Whoever coined that phrase (it may have been Steve Martin) never saw a Giuseppe Andrews’ film. If they did, they’d modify the phrase to state comedy shouldn’t be pretty. In a world long past the clipped and clever wit of a British drawing room farce, or beyond a manic Marx Brothers satire, humor has found a need to be dirty. Where once it was calm and collected, it now hankers to be down and disgusting. While it shouldn’t venture totally into the gangrenous gross out trap that so many filmmakers fall into, it should know when to skim the cesspool and pick out the chunks, so to speak. In his latest RV based magnum opus, Andrews employs such a sound strategy. Half the time, Orzo finds its funny business in its personalities. The rest of the time it’s pure raunch.


Toggle Switch is a little person living in a world of her own design. Deadly with pets, and equally unhinged with her family, she spends her days watching exercise videos and her nights in pursuit of various bizarre extracurricular activities. Her daughter is married to an ex-con, a sex toy bandit with an insatiable urge to steal dildos and bury them in the back yard. He has a hard time balancing a life of freedom. He is constantly reminded of the cellmate who showed him a better way of being. Along the way, we meet a bearded 12 year old, a closet junkie, and the skinniest fitness guru in the entire self-help universe, all getting by on chutzpah, camaraderie, and a healthy dose of vagina-based show tunes.



Orzo is by far the funniest thing Giuseppe Andrews has ever done. It’s a comedy plain and simple, a character-based humoresque that proves the actor’s mantle as both a writer and a wit. Equaling the high school toilet trappings of Judd Apatow while never venturing too far from his masterful mobile home roots, this amazing mini-epic may just top everything he’s done in the past. While other efforts in the Andrews canon have relied on occasional gimmickry and mannered moviemaking to get by (not that there is anything wrong with such a stylized approach - especially in his hands), Orzo is the first time that pure individual idiosyncrasy rules the narrative. There’s no big picture pontification (as in Garbanzo Gas) or straight ahead scatology (Period Piece). Instead, this is a day in the life dowsed in demented, frequently scatological, satisfaction.


Like Tyree and Bill Nolan before, Andrews seems to have found a new muse in undersized actress Karen Bo Baron. As Toggle Switch, her line readings and emotional cues are printed on the page performance oriented. There are even moments when her lack of skill is showcased to dazzling (if difficult) effect. But that’s the beauty of a film like Orzo. Andrews lets people be themselves, whether it’s old and rickety, young and dumb, or skilled and streetwise. It’s clear that he finds something mesmerizing in Baron’s demeanor, and we find ourselves falling under her spell as well. Other regulars, including Ed, Walter Patterson, and Marybeth Spychalski, provide ample support for this novice’s rising stardom. As in all of Andrews’ work, they stand as the backbone for the big gun’s fire power. 



Even our whisper thin hero gets into the act, playing the lamest personal trainer since Richard Simmons discovered short shorts. Decked out in a well-enhanced banana sling, and gyrating for his female clients, Andrews delivers some of the biggest laughs in the film during a gangly, gyrating strip show. Similarly, the brilliant Vietnam Ron plays the prisoner who left a big impression on Toggle Switch’s son-in-law. As he does with every acting turn, he takes very little and magically transforms it into a work of living art. Indeed, the best way to describe Orzo and any other Andrews’ film is as a breathing, writhing work of aesthetic genius. Very few filmmakers, no matter their Tinsel Town categorization, can claim that.


Yet perhaps the most intriguing part of this film is the undeniable growth Andrews continues to show. Where before, his efforts seemed tied to a true outsider idea of cinema, a desire to rewrite the language of the medium to fit his own idea of expression, now, he is incorporating more mainstream fundamentals, moving away from the reading-only strategies of something like Trailer Town and into more character based interaction. The scenes between Toggle Switch and her family crackle with a kind of interconnectivity that we haven’t really experiences before in an Andrews work. Where previously the players on screen seemed to be talking AT each other, there is a newfound sense of them talking to each other - and saying some very significant things.



In addition, Andrews is using the camera more, avoiding the point and shoot scenarios that have many complaining about his lack of craft. There is still a great deal of POV perspective being used, a way of getting the audience directly involved in the action. One of the many joys a viewer has when watching a film like Orzo is the notion of being one of the party, a person actually participating in the adventures playing out. Along with the new desire to incorporate delightfully dumb F/X into the narrative - we get a raven attack complete with light saber, and a BMX bike jump, all done via hilarious optical processes – Andrews is clearly changing.


When all is said and done, it’s the laughs that linger long after Orzo draws to a close. Rib tickling doesn’t get more ridiculous than this, a combination of factors guaranteed to get you giggling. By using various made-up words, clear interpersonal dynamics, and an attention to the way human beings interact that underscores Andrews’ understanding of people. Even if someone failed to see the specialness present in what this amazing filmmaker creates as part of the artform’s elements, his ability to turn the regular into something regal, to find the inherent grace and beauty in the downtrodden, the disenfranchised, and the different remains this director’s undeniable gift. While it’s true that very little of the physical world exists in Andrews’ unusual universe, he does reflect the kind of fringe dwelling dominion were magic happens. And Orzo is enchanted indeed.


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Saturday, Feb 2, 2008

I’m a poor judge, perhaps, but Sarah Boxer’s chin-scratching piece about blogs for the New York Review of Books seems a few years behind the curve. Are people really only discovering now that writing in these so-called “blogs” is more spontaneous and unedited than finished, reported pieces? That it relies on a currency of “links” that take you from one “website” to another on what bloggers playfully call the “internets”? That people who write blogs like attention, which is often their only form of compensation? That blogging is performative?


Boxer was apparently commissioned to compile blog excerpts for a book, and she rightly notes that the idea is somewhat futile; the act of editing (as opposed to linking) blog material would tend to denature it and remove it from the base upon which it relies, the immediate access to the rest of the internet, even if its just to fact check some outrageous claim that’s been made. There may be nothing outside the text, to paraphrase Barthes, but books still seek to create that illusion, while blogs are fully comfortable with intertextuality and their discourse is entirely enriched by it. I would personally find it inconceivable to be reading one blog in isolation—reading blogs means diving into the blogosphere, as part of your routine, in small bites between other bursts of computer-assisted productivity. And it requires the RSS feed aggregator (like Google Reader, for example), which is the blog-equivalent of a book, only it is always growing and requires constant grooming and tending. It makes the idea of someone else compiling seem redundant and limited—a book about blogs would only satsify someone who didn’t really get them, thus all the books about blogs tend to condemn them and their offenses against language and “ethics,” as if journalists would hold themselves to any standard without the threat of libel.


Boxer hails blogging as a realm of viturperative underdogs—a version of the notion n+1 floated about Gawker:


Bloggers are golden when they’re at the bottom of the heap, kicking up. Give them a salary, a book contract, or a press credential, though, and it just isn’t the same. (And this includes, for the most part, the blogs set up by magazines, companies, and newspapers.) Why? When you write for pay, you worry about lawsuits, sentence structure, and word choice. You worry about your boss, your publisher, your mother, and your superego looking over your shoulder. And that’s no way to blog.


Perhaps I am biased by the corner of the blogosphere that I tend to visit (I don’t read gossip blogs, for example), but blogging is starting to be professionalized, with able bloggers being taken up by traditional publications seeking to develop an online presence—Megan McArdle, Matt Yglesias, and Ross Douthat at the Atlantic, for instance. A career path will take shape for those who want to blog professionally, who want to be public thinkers responding in real time to events in a given field of expertise. And the unaffiliated and unpaid will sink to a backdrop, on social network pages, perhaps, and be read mainly by friends and acquaintances. And blog haters will be curled up with their Strunk and White somewhere, fighting the dumb fight against the evolution of living languages.


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